A Design Aesthetic That Lets You Succeed In a World That Doesn’t Care If You Fail

Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

If I remember correctly, the term “fern and brass” has been used to describe the hideously bland interior design of lookalike chain restaurants from the 1980s. It didn’t matter what city you were in, be it Spokane or Topeka, they all looked the same. I’m glad I was too young to have fully experienced that, but each generation has their aesthetic and its burdens. For The Cut, Molly Fischer writes a richly detailed analysis and history of a modern design style she calls the “millennial aesthetic,” in a story that has more personality, color, and life in it than any of the interiors she describes. One photo caption in Fischer’s story names the aesthetic’s hallmarks as “Motivational ad copy, soft colors, and photogenic domesticity.” Originality isn’t the point. Sameness has certain virtues, even if they’re clichés. So where did this aesthetic come from? How does it work, and will it and its pinkness ever go away? Our era has eaten the pink pill that sells us design as palliative medicine, something that, as Fischer put it, “functions like a CBD seltzer.” Also, advertising, aspirational lifestyle branding, and consumption are all intertwined in this aesthetic.

If you simultaneously can’t afford any frills and can’t afford any failure, you end up with millennial design: crowd-pleasing, risk-averse, calling just enough attention to itself to make it clear that you tried. For a cohort reared to achieve and then released into an economy where achievement held no guarantees, the millennial aesthetic provides something that looks a little like bourgeois stability, at least. This is a style that makes basic success cheap and easy; it requires little in the way of special access, skills, or goods. It is style that can be borrowed, inhabited temporarily or virtually. At the very least, you can stay a few hours in a photogenic co-working venue. At the very least, Squarespace gives you the tools you need to build your own presentable online home.

Fischer explains the central role that the color pink plays, and its surprising popularity.

No account of the millennial aesthetic could fail to address pink: For the better part of a decade, millennial pink bedeviled anyone a color could bedevil. When Facebook rolled out a corporate rebrand last fall, the lead image in the press release showed the new logo — breezily spaced sans serif — in a muted shade somewhere on the ham-to-salmon spectrum. Samuel keeps wondering when people will get sick of the color, but they don’t; almost every client asks for pink. She thinks this is because it’s soothing. They want houses that remind them of vacations, suggest Mediterranean idylls.

“It kind of feels like a binky,” Deborah Needleman, the former editor of T, WSJ., and Domino, says of millennial interiors. (Boob-print pillows and bath mats are perhaps the most literal expression of a general tendency toward the comforts of babyhood.) Needleman sees not a trip to Greece but something more like childproofing. “It’s like it has no edge or sense of humor or sense of mystery,” she says. “There’s no weirdness. There’s nothing that clashes. It is very controlled.”

It’s amusing to note that the PRADA ad in this article’s sidebar turns the brand name into an acronym for “Play Responsibly And Dress Authentically” — one of the motivational ad slogans that Fischer mentions. The ad’s background is 80% pink, and its design elements lack the authenticity its motto tries to sell.

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